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Notes and Commentary on
What Should I Do With My Life?


Some of my ongoing thoughts since the publication of this book:

The Top 15 Mistakes People Make 
More Mistakes and Misconceptions
On Courage and Risk
Common Misinterpretations and Confusions of the book
On Having Too Many Choices vs. Too Few

The Top 15 Mistakes People Make
Most people who are frustrated with their work can find help in a pragmatic solution - more pay, more flexible hours, or a nicer boss who recognizes their efforts. But many people also have philosophical and existential doubts that rack them. It's a deeper question for them, because they want to relate to their work on a deeper level. Nobody can tell you what you should do with your life. Therefore, counseling is a gentle art. When I counsel people who are in transition, I tell them, "You make good decisions by avoiding the misperceptions, fears, and fallacies that lead people to make bad decisions." And, "If you keep these misperceptions from clouding your perspective, your path to insight will be clear." Therefore, here are the The Top Fifteen Mistakes which lead people to decisions they regret, or which keep them from taking the step they ought to take.

15. The Fallacy of Thinking "It's Too Late" 
(read the chapter Out of My Mind)

14. The Failure to Distinguish between "A Day Job" and "A Good Day Job"
(read the chapter Lady Reads the News) 

13. The Failure to Embrace a Good Situation because you're waiting for "Mr. Right" (the Great Situation)

12. The Phi Beta Slacker Problem
(read the chapter The Phi Beta Slacker Dances for Herself)

11. The Failure to Look Under the Bed
(read the chapter Have You Looked Under the Bed)

10. A Generation that can't see the Virtue and Nobility of Sacrifice and Compromise - your responsibilities don't keep you from your purpose, they are part of your purpose. (read the chapter Accepting a Gift)

9. Failure to Consider the Moral Aspect of Work
(read the chapters Getting Oily, Then Even and Learning Delta Pride)

8. The Water Slide Hesitation - "Sure, I'm interested, but am I interested enough to devote the rest of my life to it?" - your desire only needs to be great enough to take the first step. From there, you see if your desire wanes or intensifies.

7. The Fear A Person Like You Doesn't Belong Around People Like Them
(read the chapter The Diver Who Loved to Read)

6. Guilt Stemming from Antiquated Notions of Class
(read the chapter The Ungrateful Soldier)

5. The Fallacy of Rational Analysis
(We are not robots. You can't just think your way to an answer. We are feeling beings. No analytical test can replace the necessity for discernment. Read the chapter The Brain Candy Generation)

4. The Fallacy of Seeing Meaning in Coincidence
(read the chapter Synchronicity or Not)

3. The Fallacy that How Much You Make is more important than How Much You Spend
(read the chapter Hunted by Her Cause)

2. The Fallacy of "First X, then Y"
(this refers to half the chapters in the book. People are afraid to fail at the thing they often would most love to do, so they divert into another profession to avoid ruining their dream)

1. The Fallacy of Intrinsic Fit
(It's not what you do, it's what you are working towards. Work satisfaction rarely comes from a perfect fit of the skills you have to the skills your job requires. All jobs have unpleasant elements - don't look for a job without unpleasant elements, but rather, look for a job that is worth doing such that the unpleasant elements are worth putting up with. Gain satisfaction from being able to do your work in a moral fashion.) The illustration below depicts the fallacy that a calling stems from a match of your skills to your job.

 

More Misconceptions
While we're at it, I might add a few more misconceptions that people make. Because there are way more than 15.

  • Being a Change Junkie, rather than a Change Artist
    (read the chapter The Boom Wrangler Has Many Reasons to Live)

  • A Calling is not something you know, when young - that's a fallacy we like to pretend exists. A calling is something you grow into over the course of your life, through trials and errors. Most of those who report "a sense of calling" did not discern that calling when young, and it took them a great deal of hard work to turn their initial opportunity into something satisfying.

  • It's not just about Getting What You Love. It's a 50-50 deal. It's half getting what you love, and half loving what you get. GWL + LWG.

  • Overromanticizing the Fantasy
    (Imagining how great it would be to do X, when you really have no experience of the reality of X. Read the chapter The Runway Gypsy)

  • You can't X-Ray the Chocolates
    People approach this choice as if it were a box of assorted chocolates. They all look good on the outside, but on the inside - hidden - are some awful tastes. Knowing they only get one chocolate, people hesitate and hover, unable to choose.  And they imagine, "If I could only X-Ray the chocolates, I could make this decision easily." Well, that's a fantasy. Every day people manage to make this decision without X-raying the chocolates. How? 2 Factors. 1. They get a nibble of a taste, or a little experience. 2. They are in tune with themselves and so can accurately anticipate what will or will not taste good when they take a whole bite.  

  • The Fallacy that you can make a smart decision in the absence of experience

  •  Don't ask "Could I be happy doing that?" You could be happy doing any number of things. People are looking not for happiness, but fulfillment. Ask a tougher question - a narrower filter. Ask "Would I find that fulfilling?"

  • Don't start with "What am I good at?"
    People mature and change over the course of their lives. Traditional career analysis begins with the question "what am I good at?," but that's a moving target as you age. You can get good at whatever you need to serve what you believe in. You can learn Spanish. You can learn budgets. You can learn to listen.

On Courage and Risk
You can make decisions to pad your wallet. You can make decisions to maintain proper appearances. You can make decisions because they're safe or predictable. You can make decisions because it'll keep your parents off your back. You can make decisions simply to delay making harder decisions. I began this book because I was drawn, artistically, to those who've made decisions to serve none of those ends. I was interested in people who resisted those pressures and made a decision simply because it was good, or right, or true to their nature - and were willing to be challenged by the consequences. 

As I wrote in the introduction, "Nothing seemed more brave to me than facing up to one's own identity, and filtering out the chatter that tells us to be someone we're not." 

I felt those would be people worth writing about, and those hard decisions would be honorable ones to work with, artistically. As a society, we'd lost touch with these kinds of stories.

Very often, what lured these people to make these decisions was the vague call of meaningful work, a sense of purpose, a hope. Often their actions didn't result in a "calling" at all, but I still felt that the bravery of their decision was inspiring. I think in each and every one of our lives, a time will come that we will have to make a hard decision like this. We might be a new college graduate, or a recent retiree, or a mother going back to work after years raising children, or a soldier coming back from conflict. I wanted this book to be a companion for people of any sort who have to make a brave decision. People who are struggling to hear that voice within.

I found that it's not what you do that defines you nearly as much as what you overcame to get there that shapes you. This is a journey of infinite variety that we all share. My account is not a self-help book, despite Random House's decision to categorize it that way. I hope it's helpful, but what I've done here is chronicle the heroic, psychological stories of real, ordinary people. I've tried to elevate their lives to the level of literature. In so doing, I am making a statement, taking a stand: your life counts. Regular, unknown, unheralded people count. The first step to breaking the ice grip of hesitancy is feeling that this life counts, that you count, that you are not meaningless. 

My hope is that by reading these people's stories, you will find yourself contemplating the decisions you've made in your life. I believe in the power of language and story. I wanted to reburn the imprints that we draw upon to tell our story. Only by being honest to our past can we gain insight from our own experiences.   

These are stories of maturation; of gaining understanding through being forced to look at life a different way. In the end, having the benefit of perspective contributed to their satisfaction as much as the new lifestyle. They got over their envy; they stopped employing ironic detachment as a inverse-survival strategy; they stopped expecting somebody else to make their life better for them. To quote Emerson, they found the power that resides in them. Some pursued a cause; others a dream; others took the only opportunity they could find and turned it into something better than a dream. Some found fulfillment when they stopped chasing fruitless notions and embraced a workable solution. Some ended up better off; some traded psychic income for part of their paycheck. Everyone has made ends meet. Most of the stories have positive outcomes, but all of the stories began in failure - in the crashing to earth of their best-laid plans, stranded here, forced to improvise, stop pretending. 

If there is a message to the book, I hope it's the message that's never stated but present in every single chapter. So often, people feel stuck. They feel trapped by inertia or by financial constraints or by a lack of experience, or the simple shortage of hours in the day. In traveling across both oceans, being welcomed into the lives of strangers, investigating so many domains I had absolutely no prior experience with, I was demonstrating that the world is a far more open book that we usually imagine it to be. The world is full of incredible, rich opportunities. If you strengthen your curiosity as you would a muscle, by exercising it regularly -- if you can empathize with the lives of others, if you are willing to see a potential friend in the face of every stranger, if you are willing to suffer some embarrassment and discomfort, and if you are patient -- you will not be stuck forever.